The discovery of antidepressants: A winding path
- Cite this article as:
- Pletscher, A. Experientia (1991) 47: 4. doi:10.1007/BF02041242
Modern treatment of mental depression started with the availability of monoamine oxidase (MAO) inhibitors and tricyclic antidepressants. These drugs also contributed to the early development of psychopharmacology. Attempts to improve the anti-tuberculous action of the hydrazine derivative isoniazid by developing derivatives thereof led to the synthesis of iproniazid. Its introduction as the first modern antidepressant was based on three unexpected actions of the drug: MAO-inhibition, ‘reversal’ of reserpine-induced sedation, and the presence of psychostimulation as a clinical side effect in man. However, the initial success of iproniazid and other MAO inhibitors, hydrazides and non-hydrazides, was curtailed by the occurrence of undesirable side effects such as potentiation of the blood-pressure elevating action of food amines. The tricyclic antidepressants were a development of the class of antihistamines, one of which, chlorpromazine, showed neuroleptic activity. A congener of this compound, imipramine, was discovered by clinical observation to have unexpected antidepressant effects. The clinical success of this drug (which is still in use) led to the development of a successful series of other tricyclic and non-tricyclic antidepressants. Progress in the elucidation of possible mechanisms of the action of the tricyclic compounds has helped this development. Recent advances in basic research have also induced a revival of MAO-inhibitors since, due to the discovery of MAO-subtypes, inhibitors with higher specificity and fewer undesirable side effects are now available.